May 30, 2020
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Irrawaddy Mist

Should be recommended reading for every person with an interest in Burma and in our Northeast

Irrawaddy Mist
The River Of Lost Footsteps: Histories Of Burma
By Thant Myint-U
Faber&Faber Pages: 348; Rs. 495

We have heard the story of Stalin thundering at an aide when told of a message from the then Pope, a message with which he did not agree: "How many divisions does the Pope have?" The answer perhaps came many decades later, on a different continent, with a different faith, in a different context and political situation.

At the heart of the struggle for the life and destiny of Burma -- a struggle that is most recently manifested in the upsurge and crushing of a peoples' revolt by a brutal army regime which has held power for 35 years -- was the brilliant display of the non-violence strategy of the Buddhist clergy in their rich maroon robes on the streets of Yangon and elsewhere.

It was exquisite in its simplicity and extraordinary in the breadth of the power of a simple gesture: the bikhus turned their begging bowls upside down when offered food by soldiers and members of the regime. With that one step, the monks answered both the junta and Stalin: "We are as numerous as you, if not more." Which in fact is true of the legions of the monk-hood of Burma, which the junta calls Myanmar: there are about 400,000 soldiers--among the largest standing armies of the world in one of the poorest nations on earth, a nation despoiled and impoverished by its despots--and almost as many monks.

That is why the statement of the monks is a remarkable expression of silent courage, a quality and strategy which Mahatma Gandhi respected and disseminated, much to the dismay of an empire. It was a statement of rejection, a declaration of virtual excommunication for those who thrashed, detained and killed others who opposed them. The images of young men kneeling before the police who kicked and beat them with sticks and gun butts before shoving them into waiting trucks and vans flash through the mind. The same fate awaited monks -- reports from our isolated and sad neighbour talk of empty monasteries and the detention of hundreds of men in saffron.

But there is a positive sign: recent interactions between the UN mediator, Ibrahim Gambari, the junta and Aung Sang Su Kyi herself (a minister has been appointed to talk with this pro-democracy leader who has been in custody for over 12 years) are significant steps but will have enduring footprints only if the junta is serious and does not use the breathing space when Burma fades from international focus to wriggle out as it has done in the past.

The River of Lost Footsteps, Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U is a powerful and sweeping story of the struggles that have made and unmade his country over the centuries, touching the lives and stories of monks and kings, empire builders and destroyers, writers and diplomats, generals and freebooters. It should be read not only because it is rich in detail and epic in the scale of the telling but because it enables a reader, especially any one with an interest in Burma or who has visited that beautiful land, to go into the heart of the forces that have shaped it, the violence and brutality of the despots and kings, the nobles and generals who struck fear into their neighbours, conquered Assam and Manipur, defeated the Thais and whose kingdoms rose and fell even as they massacred rebel strongholds.

They brooked neither dissent nor interference and refused to bow to the most powerful military force in Asia: the kingdom of China. What I did not realise until I read River of Lost Footsteps is that not only did the Burmese not yield to the Chinese but defeated what Thant calls perhaps the mightiest army ever sent out of China.

What is fascinating are Burma's internal attitudes and formal policies toward neighbours such as China, Thailand and India, the cruelty of kings toward failed rebellions and their pogroms. British greed and deceit which led to the exile of the gentle but weak King Thibaw to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, where he died, are on full display here. It was some years before that the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was dispatched to lonely exile in Yangon where his mausoleum stands in the shadow of the glittering Shewedegon Pagoda.

Colourful pirates and flamboyant political buccaneers populate this 348-page book which is a measure of Thant's own rediscovery of his heritage and nation. Scion of one of Burma's most distinguished families, that of U Thant, the gentle-faced politician and diplomat who rose from being a school mate and advisor the country's first Prime Minister U Nu to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Thant, as he likes to be called, himself worked for some years at the United Nations. He has had a privileged life, compared to the tragedies of millions of his countrymen, and the advantage of living away from Burma, with education at some of the best colleges of the world. His first exposure to the public anger against the generals was when he returned with his parents to Yangon for his grandfather's funeral and saw outrage exploding on the streets against the junta's efforts to undermine the role of U Thant and the respect he enjoyed among the Burmese people.

However, I was disappointed by his far too cautious tone on the current situation. He opposes sanctions which, he points out, actually hurt the Burmese people more than the generals, and advocates more engagement with the generals to make them understand that their world and rule cannot continue indefinitely. But the worrying fact is that the generals who run Burma have lived in a time warp and are so deeply isolationist that not only does the distress among their own people not worry them but they are largely unconcerned by international opinion, although that seems to have changed a bit.

But for the long and medium-term changes to happen, men like Thant will have to move from observer to active involvement, from elegant historian to a position of leadership in the front lines. This is a calling for which his inheritance, abilities, knowledge and privileged training have prepared him.

India too needs to take a far more activist role, rallying ASEAN and Burma's neighbours, through UN forums for an international conference on Burma that can define the steps needed to bring that country back to economic and political stability as well as dialogue and democracy. It is important to curtail the role of the military and give primacy to the democrats who must embrace the ethnic separatist minorities who have fought the generals for over 50 years.

History is what we learn from it. And our Indian officials and politicians, so keen to cosy up to a regime of generals which offers visions of energy supply from its extensive gas and oil fields to fuel-strapped India could learn a whole lot from it, as they engage in their balancing act with China as well as tackling the Northeastern insurgents including the Nagas, ULFA and assorted Manipuri groups who have bases in Burma and seem to have a comfortable relationship with the junta in Burma. Some years ago, senior leaders of a Manipuri insurgent group were briefly held by Burmese security forces on the Indo-Burma border and as quietly and quickly released.

Perhaps one of the things to learn for India is why there's been so little to show on the ground in terms of tangible positive realities for India. After all, the insurgents are not a thorn in Burma's flesh; they are for us. We are keen to rush through highways in Burma to the economies of SE Asia; they're not that keen to walk along that path. We see our military collaboration and economic stake as an opportunity to reduce China's influence-- they see our wooing as an opportunity to play India and China against each other and they haven't been too helpful with energy deals either, citing our slow pace of pushing agreements.

Beijing meanwhile is reluctant to let go of an ally which gives it direct access to the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and a presence close to Indian military positions in the Andamans. It is only because of its Olympics worries that Beijing took note of the international anger at the junta to call for democracy in Burma, also ensuring that Gambari met with the generals.

There cannot be a Look East Policy without a policy for Burma-- for Burma straddles the well-traveled road to SE Asia. It is there as a road block, a challenge, a situation of deep despair and acute poverty, ruled by a brutal military that knows no other way or world and, as it showed in September, is capable of turning viciously against men and women of the cloth, the Buddhist monks and nuns.

Conditions and developments in Burma or Myanmar have a direct impact on the north-east, especially the border states of Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland. This book should be recommended reading for every person with an interest in Burma but also in our Northeast, especially policy planners and scholars.

A shorter, edited version of this piece appeared in print. Sanjoy Hazarika is writer, film maker, innovator and policy analyst whose interests include designing and building boats which take health services to the marginalized on the Brahmaputra river in Assam. He is author of the acclaimed Strangers of the Mist and Rites of Passage on insurgencies and migration in the North-east.

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